Modern Religious History seminars, Autumn 2017

John Maiden and John Wolffe are co-conveners of the Institute of Historical Research‘s Modern Religious History seminar, and they have just published the schedule for the Autumn seminar series.

All talks take place on Wednesday at 17:15 PM, in the Professor Olga Crisp Room N102, 1st floor, IHR, North block, Senate House, School of Advanced Study at the University of London (map at this link – it’s No. 3).

Details are below, and you can download the pdf here.

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Dangerous Hegemonies: A Comment on the “Christian Child in Muslim Foster Care” Reports

By David G. Robertson

If you are in the UK, you almost certainly saw the fuss around a story carried by The Times on Aug 28th under the banner “Christian Child forced into Muslim foster care”. The scandal ostensibly revolved around the fact that the foster mother wears a burka, which the Times suggests “generally indicates adherence to a conservative, Salafi-influenced interpretation of Islam that is often contemptuous of liberal Western values”. The use of the term “contemptuous” is clearly loaded, implying an irrational hatred of Western morality rather than simply a disagreement, and there is nothing in that that will be surprising or less than obvious to anyone following the discourse on religion in the popular media.

There are a few interesting points when we dig into the story, however, which I think are illuminating in how such hysterical stories come to appear in the press (and I am drawing here from Richard Bartholomew’s excellent blog post on the stories). Firstly, the Times report seems to have been intended primarily as a follow-up to the recent Tower Hamlets fire and the ongoing concern over the callous treatment of the residents by the local council both before and after. It mentions “the scandal-ridden borough of Tower Hamlets” several times, but had no concern about the girl’s previous Muslim foster parents prior to the fire. The article was also written by the journalist who broke the story of “grooming gangs” in Rotherham, so perhaps that further encouraged the sensationalistic tone.

However, the story began to receive wider attention when the Mail Online picked it up and added a stock photograph of a child not in obviously “Muslim” dress holding hands with a Muslim woman in a headdress onto which they had clumsily photoshopped a veil, as reported by the Guardian. It further emerged that the appointment of the foster carers had nothing to do with Tower Hamlets council, that the court-appointed guardian had absolutely no concerns about the child’s welfare, and that the child had always been intended to eventually reside with their grandmother once a risk assessment had been carried out. Things then took a bizarre twist when it emerged that the grandmother in question was, in fact… Muslim.

So we have a perfect storm of more-or-less explicit xenophobia, editorial ineptitude and conspiratorial implications about both corrupt local politicians and organised anti-liberal Islamic invaders. This guaranteed click-bait then gets further traction when the left-wing press picks it up in order to criticise the right-wing press, not without justification in this instance. Thus a viral story is born.

But I think this story also reveals a couple of interesting implications about how religion is dealt with in the media, beyond the obvious Islamophobia. First, notice that the child’s Christian status is uncontested and unproblematic. It is as though the child’s Christianity is an essential and permanent essence, whereas Islam is being imposed (“forced”, even) from without. While the implication is that the child is vulnerable and therefore should be protected from having ideologies forced upon them, this doesn’t seem to be a concern with Christianity. Can one be brainwashed into Christianity?  If the child is too young to choose to become a Muslim or not, does that not suggest that it is also too young to choose to become a Christian or not?

No; and the reason why is a good example, I suggest, of the difference between ideology and hegemony: when an ideology is invisible, it is a hegemony. We are happy to describe Muslim dress codes as being for cultural or religious reasons, but we do not often describe our own dress codes in the same way – including many codes determined by gender and status like skirt-wearing, cosmetics, business attire, and so on. These are just what people do. Like fish, we do not see the water in which we are swimming.

For scholars of New Religions, the language used in these reports will be strikingly similar to the way that “cults” were talked about from the end of World War 2 until the 1990s. As I wrote about in a previous blog, children were often at the centre of the Cult Wars, and the rhetoric (often from the very same individuals) of the anti-cult movement continues straight into the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare of the 1990s and into the present with Pizzagate. The desire to protect children from harm is laudable, and indeed seems to have been the aim of all the officials involved here, but these reports seem more concerned with protecting children from difference. If we wish a more progressive society, it is as important to protect from dangerous hegemonies as from dangerous ideologies. So long as they remain invisible, however, the former is far harder to do.

3 Minute Theory | The Individual with Stephen Quilley

In three minutes, Stephen Quilley tells us about the idea of the individual. Are we really free autonomous agents? Where does the idea of the individual come from, and how does it relate to modern systems of government?

3 Minute Theory | The Individual with Stephen… by religiousstudies

Are YOU an individual? What theories or theorists should we cover in future videos? Let us know in the comments!

Culture Wars: Alt+R vs. Ctrl_L, and what the Social Sciences can do about it

By Suzanne Newcombe. Part 2 of a Series (read Part 1 here)

The concept of the Alt+R has become familiar with the ascendency of Donald Trump to the office of the President of the United States. The need for an alternative to the political and economic status quo is felt on all sides of political persuasions. What to do about this situation though, often appears harder to propose and even harder to agree upon. I will first describe the current ‘culture wars’ as a conflict between an Alt+R and a Ctrl+L – before arguing for the importance of teaching and using the methods of the Social Sciences and Humanities to navigate this environment.

The Alt+R is associated with abrasive ‘plain-talking’ populist ‘truths’ and cries of ‘fake news’ when facts are interpreted with what is seen to be the wrong conclusion. The Alt+R uses a variety of strategies to delegitimize and silence opposing political views, from promoting its own ‘trusted’ and ‘unbiased’ sources such as Breitbart, Fox News and Citizen’s United political ‘exposes’ to decrying critical news sources as ‘FAKE NEWS’, to blatant ad hominem attacks, in the USA, against  figures like Senator Rand Paul, Hilary Clinton or Arianna Huffington.

While this vitriolic discourse is more intense on the other side of the pond, there are echoes of it in European politics with the various populist movements from the English Defence League, UKIP, to France’s National Front to Greece’s Golden Dawn.

Although the Alt+R has embraced this term as one of positive self-identity, one can also identify what I will term a “Ctr+L” – those self-identifying on the left of the political spectrum who also attempt to silence opposition.  At times, traditional media sources have described the Alt+R’s message as unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, discrediting the message without examination of the evidence.

University engagement in no-platforming and silencing of opposition through noisy protests and chants, removing the books of Holocaust deniers from open-access shelves, and an enforcement of ‘politically correct’ language, provides ammunition for the Alt+R’s impressions of the existence of a ‘liberal thought police’.

The Ctr+L is not above riots and violence, as events surrounding schedule talks of (then) Breitbart News spokesperson Milo Yiannopoulos at California Universities UCLA, Davis and Berkeley during early 2017 and some G20 protests have shown.

Photograph of a burning police cruiser at the G20 protests in 2010 which turned violent in Toronto.  Image by Mark Mozaz Wallis (Creative Commons).

So what can we, as educators, do in a time when (apparently) the ‘authority of experts’ is derided? Continue reading

Culture Wars 2.0 and the End of Faith

By Paul-Francois Tremlett. Part 1 of a series.

The recent election of Donald Trump to Presidential office in the USA and the referendum to leave the EU in Britain have been described as evidence for an outbreak of new culture wars. The term ‘culture wars’ has been used to describe conflicts in late 19th century England and late 20th century America between secular and religious populations over issues such as gender and sexuality and the status of religious and scientific truth-claims. The rise of the self-styled new atheism was arguably part of the same phenomenon.

Interestingly, the linkage of Trump and Brexit to a new bout of culture wars has no obvious link to any religion-secular flashpoints. The 2016 report by Kirby Swales on the Brexit vote by the National Centre for Social Research concluded that “the EU Referendum was highly divisive, highlighting a wide range of social, geographical and other differences in Great Britain. This was less a traditional left-right battle, and more about identity and values (liberalism vs authoritarianism). It is a strong sign that the so-called ‘culture wars’ of the US have arrived in Great Britain in earnest” (2016: 27). Rich Lowry in The Guardian argued in similar fashion that Trump’s election in the USA exposed new fissures around populism, immigration and nationalism. But, if the new culture wars do not reproduce the religious-secular flash-points of the past, what do they do?

A key feature of the Trump and Brexit election campaigns were claims about fake news and alternative facts. If the arch-postmodernists Jean Baudrillard and Jean-François Lyotard are to be believed, this is because the modern narrative of incremental progress and knowledge is breaking down—if not, indeed, going into reverse. Where classical sociology predicted secularization—a terminal loss of faith in religious institutions—postmodern sociology predicts a loss of faith in all the other institutions as well, from the banks, universities, newspapers and courts to the politicians. The election of Trump and the Brexit vote point to this wider breakdown. The Occupy movement—about which I’ve conducted research in London and Hong and Kong (Tremlett 2012 and 2016)—registered global distrust in economic institutions. The camps that sprang up in cities around the world were attempts to find new sources of authenticity in speech and the face-to-face intimacies of camp life, and to imagine economies not in terms of competition, but rather cooperation. Ultimately, of course, the protests failed both in terms of their primary aim of bringing about political change to rein in the banks and in terms of their secondary aim of restoring peoples trust that they were part of a common society. But the movement did provide an imaginary which formed around the preference for close, horizontal relationships over distant, vertical or hierarchical ones.

The new culture wars, then, may not be about religion, but they are about faith and loss of faith: the loss of faith in existing institutions to speak sincerely and the process of trying to discover something or someone new to place trust in.

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Conference Announcement | Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective: Publics and Performances

Kents Hill, Milton Keynes | February 19-21, 2018


Themes | Education, Media, Pilgrimage, Politics, Ritual, Spirituality

Keynote Speakers | Bettina Schmidt, Philip Williamson, Steven Sutcliffe

At a time when the public role of the University is under increasing scrutiny, how can we ensure that research and teaching about religions reaches new publics? What can we do to enhance religious literacy both within and beyond religious and non-religious communities? How is ritual and performance involved in communication between religious communities, the academy, policy makers and the broader public? Are there ways in which we can learn from the past in better understanding such channels of communication?

Bringing historical perspective to the contemporary role of religion in the public sphere, this conference will include contributions from practitioners and third-sector organisations, who bring their perspectives to the academy to consider the public impact of Religious Studies.

The Open University invites proposals for papers and panels. Topics may include, but are not limited to:

  • Secular and political rituals
  • Faith-based organisations in the secular state
  • Religious rhetoric in the public sphere
  • The changing historical relationship between religion and the state
  • Ritual theory
  • Religion and the Media
  • Spirituality and well-being
  • Religious literacy, education and policy-making
  • The role of inter-faith groups
  • Pilgrimage
  • Secularisation
  • Historical case-studies on religion, performance and the public

Full Call for Papers here, or visit

Abstracts (200 words) should be submitted to by 30th October 2017. Papers will be 20 minutes, with 10 minutes for discussion. The organisers also welcome proposals for panels. Panels will be 90 minutes, normally including three papers. Panel proposals should include panel title, abstracts for each paper and the name of the convener/chair. We also welcome proposals and suggestions for alternative and innovative formats.

Deadline for paper/panel submissions: 30th October 2017

Notification of acceptance of papers/panels: by 15th November 2017

Online registration for conference open from: 30th October 2017

For any enquiries, please contact the Conference Organisers Paul-François Tremlett and David G. Robertson on

Three Minute Theories | Paul-Francois Tremlett on Max Weber

Welcome to a new video series here at the Open University – Three Minute Theories! They’re the punk rock 7-inch of critical thinking.

To kick us off, here’s our very own Paul-Francois Tremlett on why Max Weber remains an important and highly relevant thinker today.

New videos every two weeks. Share widely!

3 Minute Theories | Max Weber with Paul… by religiousstudies

Why is Weber important to you? What theories or theorists should we cover in future videos?